Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.03.01

Jean-Marc Moret, Les pierres gravées antiques représentant le rapt du Palladion.   Mainz am Rhein:  Philip von Zabern, 1997.  Pp. x, 366; plates xii, 120.  ISBN 3-8053-2302-6.  

Reviewed by Lisa R. Brody, Department of Art, Art History and Design, University of Notre Dame ( or
Word count: 1946 words

This two-volume publication focuses on Greek and Roman gemstones that depict the mythological theft of the Palladion from Troy by Diomedes and Odysseus. The high-quality presentation is consistent with the standard that scholars have come to expect from von Zabern. It is intended for an audience of Classical art scholars and contains several informative features geared toward this particular audience. It is, first and foremost, a comprehensive catalogue of objects. For this reason, M. has opted to place the catalogue at the front of the book, rather than in the standard location at the back. Although this is an unusual format, it very nicely highlights the fact that the objects themselves provide the focus of the research. The plates volume is particularly valuable, containing high-quality photographs of every piece in the corpus as well as hundreds of relevant comparanda: gems, coins, sculpture, and vases. The bibliography (pp. 296-337) is extremely complete, and the fact that an abbreviation is provided for every publication makes checking references easy and efficient. There are also four different indexes: I. objects, II. sites, III. artists, and IV. ancient authors, all of which further enhance the utility of the catalogue and text.

M.'s catalogue includes 310 engraved gemstones that are identified as representing the theft of the Palladion by Diomedes and/or Odysseus. The objects are arranged geographically according to their provenience: I. Greece (pp. 5-23), II. Magna Graeca (pp. 24-30), III. Italy (pp. 31-199). This attempt to approach an iconographic subject from an archaeological perspective is admirable, but it is unclear how secure these proveniences truly are, since gemstones are small luxury objects that frequently appear in art markets with little or no recorded context or history. Within each section, the gems are presented in chronological order; they range in date from the late fifth century B.C. to the third century A.C. The sub-divisions of the catalogue, however, are not specified in the table of contents, which obligates the reader to read through the entries page-by-page in order to understand their organization and to locate particular gems. Each object, assigned a bold-faced catalogue number, is identified primarily by its museum and inventory number. Additional data provided for each piece includes material, dimensions, a description (with some interpretation), date, and bibliography. The entries vary in content and comprehensiveness. Some of them emphasize subject matter and iconography, others emphasize dating criteria and style. In several instances, M. refers to other gemstones that he would attribute to the same engraver; these are sometimes, but not always, illustrated among the plates. Dates generally seem to be determined from comparisons with coins, but this is not always expressly stated in the individual entries.

Photographs of each catalogued piece are provided, in sequence, at the beginning of the plates volume. As M. explains in the introduction, photographs of impressions are used because these are often more legible than photographs of the stones themselves; this is the accepted practice among scholars of gems. Since gemstone engravers likely conceived of the scenes as negative images, impressions give scholars the best sense of style and quality. For the most important, best-preserved examples, M. has included a second photograph showing the stone itself. The photographs are arranged with 4-6 per page. Most are printed at a roughly uniform size, so that each stone is shown at a different level of magnification, generally around 400-500%. No indication of scale is given on the plates, so that the reader must refer back to the dimensions given in the catalogue. This is slightly inconvenient, but not a major problem.

In the introduction, M. sets forth his goals for this publication. First and foremost, it is meant as a comprehensive catalogue of all gems showing the rape of the Palladion, with complete stylistic and chronological information for every known example. In fact, the completeness of this information varies from gem to gem. The gems selected for the study include those that actually show the Palladion, or those are clearly excerpted from a scene, known elsewhere, where the Palladion is shown. Where possible, M. identifies the gem's school or engraver. The abundant, high-quality illustrations are meant to allow readers to understand and, perhaps, to correct M.'s attributions and interpretations. He is to be commended for the fact that most of the examples were examined first-hand, with the exceptions of those housed in American collections (approximately ten) and those that are now lost.

Unfortunately, the interpretive section of M.'s book (pp. 201-294) does not have the same value as the catalogue. The catalogue is an important reference, based on a vast amount of study and research, but M. has attempted to make his publication more than merely a catalogue by including five short interpretative chapters, plus a conclusion; these are overly ambitious and ultimately confusing. Chapter One addresses the Diomedes type attributed to the fifth-century sculptor, Kresilas. M. is not concerned with the attribution of the statue to Kresilas, but with the identification of the figure as Diomedes.1 He begins by discussing the statue type, the reconstruction of the original bronze, and its identification as the Greek hero. This section, which is a direct response to a recent article by C. Landwehr that identified it instead as a possible portrait of Juba II,2 would have been more appropriately published as an independent article, since only in the second part of the chapter do the gemstones themselves enter into the equation. This part, however, is useful. It compiles the examples of this particular type, which number over thirty and begin to appear in Magna Graeca and Italy during the third century B.C. This group provides, as M. rightly states, a rare opportunity to use gemstones as a source of information, together with Roman sculptural copies, for the study of a famous lost original. There is a large amount of variation and modification evident among the gems, leading M. to conclude that the engravers were not necessarily concerned with reproducing the statue itself. Instead, he finds that they were "inspiré du type statuaire pour représenter le héros vivant, en action; c'est dans cette optique qu'ils ont modifié l'original." (p. 211). It is interesting to observe, furthermore, that the gemstone engravers seem to have had access to multiple viewpoints of whatever model they were using. As M. notes, this model need not have been the original fifth-century bronze statue, but could have been replica statues or statuettes.

The next chapter, "The Motif of the Baldachin," addresses a small subset of the gemstones, 72-77. These show Diomedes kneeling on an altar, holding the Palladion in his left arm, with a smaller figure (most likely Odysseus) in the background, under a canopy. The issue, it seems, centers around whether the men are represented inside or outside the Trojan temple. M. concludes that Diomedes is meant to be inside and Odysseus outside: "Le rapt du Palladion ... c'est peut-être la seule [scène] où deux lieux, le dedans et le dehors, apparaissent simultanément dans la même image" (p. 229). His analysis of this scene, however, seems far too lengthy considering that it deals with such a small number of gems and with a scene that in fact offers few problems of interpretation.

Overall, M. is to be lauded for taking on such a huge topic and for creating such a comprehensive catalogue. Both the introduction and the conclusion, however, have shortcomings that interfere with the overall value of the publication. The introduction, for instance, would have been improved with more discussion of methodology and definition. According to the book's title, the subject of the gems under consideration is the rape of the Palladion. This is not unproblematic, however, since several simplified representations show Odysseus and/or Diomedes but not the Palladion itself; they may therefore depict some other epic scene. M. even concludes at one point (p. 240) that it is virtually impossible to determine whether these gemstones are meant to represent the theft of the Palladion or the murder of Dolon. He also eliminates, for one reason or another, several gems that had been included in previous catalogues. Some of these he judges to be fakes.3 Others, he states, represent something other than the Palladion scene, but these are mentioned only in passing or in a footnote; they could have benefited from greater explanation. Since the primary value of M.'s work is the compilation of a corpus of gems that show a particular scene, more time should have been devoted to the definition and selection of this material. For example, Boardman had published a stone in Göttingen as an image of Diomedes.4 Despite the fact that the figure indeed looks like several others that M. accepts as Diomedes and includes in his catalogue, he states without explanation that this example depicts Paris (p. 2).

In addition to these problems, certain inconsistencies and logistical difficulties make the work cumbersome to use and consequently less effective for research. In some catalogue entries, for instance, the gemstone engraver's name is provided in the title (i.e. 224, signed by Solon), while others reduce this important piece of information to a secondary part of the description (i.e. 225, 226, 256). This is particularly puzzling because some of these gems, such as 256, are elsewhere identified by their engraver (in this case, Felix). Also, for numerous examples whose current locations are unknown (i.e. 10, 33, 35, 90, 189, 230), M. indicates that there is no bibliography for them. Photographs of them, however, are included among the plates, which would seem to suggest that the gems have indeed been published; this is confusing.

Overall, I feel that the book tries to address too many relatively minor issues while neglecting major iconographic concerns; M. is far more concerned with the trees than with the forest. Considering that the book purports to be a complete and final publication of all engraved gemstones showing the rape of the Palladion, there is a noticeable lack of any general discussion about the iconographic elements of this myth and the variations/excerpts seen among the surviving gems. Much of this information is virtually buried within the catalogue. For instance, 192 is a unique scene, showing Odysseus holding the Palladion rather than Diomedes. Interesting facts such as this could easily be missed by the scholar (and there will surely be many) who thinks of the catalogue as a reference tool and does not read every single entry.

Although as an archaeologist, I appreciate M.'s attempt to emphasize the geographical and chronological context of his pieces, I have ultimately decided, after repeated reference to the catalogue, that this was not the optimal approach. Gemstones too often have unknown or insecure provenience information, and dating them is notoriously difficult and imprecise. It would have been better to organize the catalogue according to iconographic type, so that the copies and variations of particular scenes would be immediately evident. This would also be more consistent with M.'s primary focus, which is the iconography of the rape of the Palladion rather than the scene's chronological development or historical context. The presentation of the catalogue therefore suffers from the same problem that plagues the book overall -- it tries to do far more than the evidence warrants. Les pierres gravées antiques représentant le rapt du Palladion is an important addition to Classical scholarship. It would have been even more valuable if it had kept its focus trained on the specific iconography of a finite group of engraved gemstones. As it is, its interpretation and conclusions are of limited use. I would therefore recommend it primarily as a good reference-oriented catalogue and as a source of high-quality images, for a body of material that has been largely ignored by previous scholars of Classical art and iconography.


1.   This attribution is still open to scholarly debate, as A. Stewart has noted: "Its attribution to Cresilas is often suggested, but remains hypothetical" [Greek Sculpture: an exploration (New Haven 1990) 168].
2.   C. Landwehr, "Juba II. als Diomedes?" JdI 107 (1992) 103-124.
3.   For example, a sardonyx cameo published by J. Boardman, "Diomedes I," LIMC III (Zurich and Munich 1986) #43.
4.   "Diomedes I," LIMC III (Zurich and Munich 1986) #57.

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